Foreword: Open Office and MS Word have both died on me so no spell-check for this one.
Also, I don't feel my opinion on this matter is new or any more valid than anyone else's but I do think I'm on to something (or hope.) The title was made half in jest and half as bait to get people to read this, otherwise I'd mostly be wasting my time. :/
Also, this article is sort of long, and I know most of you are probably reading this leisurely at home or at work on your lunch hour... Maybe. Anyway, it's ok to skip to the end and read the short summary, you can always go back and read finer points later if you want.
As it stands, currently
So, we have WoW. It's a great game, and makes obscene amounts of coin. Because of this lots of companies are out to try and either take some of WoW's users, dethrone WoW, or... just... Make a decent dollar under Warcraft's shadow. Every company seems to think they have the answer, which is usually based around making an MMO out of some popular IP or... Well, aside from maybe Champions Online, APB and a few others that's really it. Most of them try to throw in one or two new tricks but they never seem to stick.
I think, regardless of what new way you go about changing the WoW model, even if it's amazing or terrible, it will not have that great an impact on your numbers. Furthermore I think if one were to play in WoW's market and make any kind of significant progress it will have to improve on something WoW hasn't paid much attention to.
Look over there, it's a segueway!
Really quick summation of something Raph Koster talked about
This is Raph Koster. He spends a lot of time talking about video games. He also makes a lot of games, and you can read all about that here. Anyway, one of the important things he and Richard Bartle have ranted on about are player archetypes. If you know what these are already (Diamonds, Clubs, Hearts, Stars and Horeshoes, Clovers and Balloons, etc) you should skip on to the next section. If not, here's an incredibly brief refresher:
Players of online games all tend to enjoy four types of playstyles: achieving, exploring, socializing and killing. Every player enjoys some of those activities more than others. These are grouped into the four suits found in an average card deck for simplicity.
Diamond: Achievers. These people enjoy playing the game to achieve goals, gain treasure, get levels, etc.
Spade: Explorers. These people want to take the game to it's limits. Not just exploring the vast landscape, but to explore what the system itself is capable of. To find bugs, exploits, easter eggs, etc.
Hearts: Socializers. These players socialize with others, and are usually RPers.
Club: Killers. Players who enjoy causing distress and turmoil to other players.
Again, no one player is strictly of one type or another, rather players tend to enjoy one or more of these activities.
Lastly, the ecosystem of any online community requires the existence of all four types. Achievers need a stable number of killers to feel they're getting a challenge out of the game. Socializers need people to socialize with, and generally like all types except killers. Explorers benefit all types with information, and killers thrive on hurting achievers and socializers.
What WoW does
So what does WoW do? In my opinion it's setup to appeal to achievers with new content and challenges for them to overcome, along with functional PvP, and explorers get new places to check out, skills to use and environments to discover. Socializers and killers likewise are taken care of, but aren't particularly catered too as much as explorers/achievers.
And here's the crux of the situation,
1) Most other MMOs seem to follow WoW, insofar as creating a game for explorers and achievers, which never seems to stick because those player types already have WoW.
2) Most players who stay with WoW stay for new content, but, in the case of every player in every MMO I've ever tried, private servers and public servers, MMORPGs and MUDs, what keeps players staying, paying subscription fees. What brings players to your game, and brings back old players (aside from new exciting content) is other players.
3) Making your game accessible to new players, and allow for hardcore gamers to enjoy it as well should be a given.
The third point is something all new MMOs do, and it's what attracts that core group of achievers and explorers. So any new MMO must meet that basic requirement first (and a lot of the ones I've played have), but I feel these new MMOs should take the next step and create environments that appeal to socializers and killers.
What WoW could do
This will focus just on socializers, because more socializers means more killers.
I think WoW doesn't effectively appeal to social gamers as much as they could. In fact, almost all MMOs don't appeal to this group as much as they could. Case in point, most of these gamers flock to more casual friendly places most people wouldn't consider "games". Places like Second Life, Club Penguin and the upcoming Free Realms. Gaia online even.
Some companies have realized this, and have created games in a similar vein, but their abundance of casual play and a lack of a hardcore player element doesn't attract the kind of crowd I'm assuming you and I are looking for. There's nothing wrong with such games, but they don't appeal to the 13-35 male demographic most mainstream MMOs aim for.
So, I feel mainstream MMOs should create a game that has all the gameplay qualities of WoW/WAR/LotRO/EQ2/et all, with more functions that make it easier for players to get together, meet new people, and keep in contact with them. Here are some thoughts:
Better guild options:
In fact, I should be able to join as many guilds as I want, with the option to control which guild messages and chats I want to see and where. Also better functionality with guild alliances, guild hosted housing, guild ships, etc. Other things might be a secure guild bank system, tools to make guild sponsored quests and events easier to run, and guild teamspeak if possible.
Better party options:
In my opinion parties are too transient. They just come and go, and it's always a hassle to keep them together. Not to mention finding a good party is incredibly fun and incredibly rare. So, what if we took WoW's LFG system and enhanced it?
Say you can put in a few of your favorite hobbies, and interests, and the system would match you up with players of similar interests? Even if you're constantly dying in a party, if you're getting along with the other players and forming new friendships it can still be a great experience. Or what if you could list your skill level with the game? Some players enjoy helping newbies out and it also gives newbies the chance to learn how to play the game together. And of course players who want to just jump into a party can still use the old system as well.
To take the idea further, what if players where given the option to fill out a character bio page much like the info page on Facebook or MySpace? Some players won't bother, and it shouldn't be mandatory, but you can bet a roleplayer will leap at the chance to extoll tomes of information about their character. You could also list your friends, and friends of your friends you might want to get in contact with.
What if parties themselves could level up? I think the idea was used in RoseOnline (not sure), but if parties stuck together long enough the physical party itself would level up and grant the players more exp per kill. This wouldn't be a long-lasting thing, perhaps after a few hours you'd reach level 2, after a day of sticking together level 3, and finally a week goes by and you're up to level 4. And each increase would increase the quality of the drops you gain as well as the exp. The concept needs some tweaking, but the general idea is one to think about.
Lastly, being able to see the last time you logged in or out, as well as the last time your friends logged in or out I think would go a long way towards helping groups coordinate their play times.
Reducing or removing gear dependency and replacing it with customization
Something that bothers a lot of players is making a unique and interesting looking character and then having that character's look be completely removed and replaced with "generic newbie gear C" two minutes into playing. Now, I'm not just saying give all players a cheap and easy way to dye their gear and change their hair, but perhaps make the look of your character completely separate from stat bonuses.
Why not have bangles like from FFVII or badges from Paper Mario be the items that grant one stat bonuses, and give players the freedom to make their characters look however they wish?
One problem is this removes the ability for players to "look upon ye mighty PvP/Raid gods and despair" but being able to post the stats of your gear in the chat or on your profile page.
Free accounts to clan leaders
This is something most MMOs do already, but it's worth noting. One of the things to help bring in the numbers is to get the various clan leaders from groups known in various MMORPG games free accounts for a year or a few months. This gets them to try it out, and if they like it they'll bring over as many of their clansmen as they can.
More dynamic quests
I don't like the way most quests are setup. A lot of people share a similar opinion, in that quests seem to be very robotic in how they're handled. Talk to someone with a yellow "!" above their head, click the "get quest" button, and then leave. There's no real sense of story or involvement, just fetch questing.
Contrarywise, when I play a game like Fallout 2 or V:tmB or any other offline game quests are more dynamic. Why in online games can I not talk back to an NPC? Maybe I can't "type" a response, but being able to go back and forth with an NPC would add to the story and immersion.
Perhaps if I've played a quest already the ability to just skip the dialogue and get a quest would be nice. Also, more quest chains with branching paths and/or the ability to solve some quests in different ways would be nice too. I don't mind farming 20 wolf pelts if I actually have a reason to, or if I can see the effects of doing so real time.
Maybe if I kill too many wolves the mother wolf will appear and attack me, or maybe while I'm traveling to the king to give him a letter an assasin tries to stop me along the way. Not all quests can realistically have that level of immersion, but one in ten or more should.
Look at City of Heroes: the ability to make quests is a great idea, but the problem with user-created content is it's rarely as good or better than the official stuff. However, putting out a bounty on another player with an awesome reward, or putting up a quest asking for a higher level player to guide you through a tough area would be an interesting change of pace. Simple quests that involve less NPCs and more PCs would be something to try out.
MMOs need more social aspects. Most new MMOs nowadays just offer new or gimmicky content that's just not as interesting as WoW. A new coat of paint in WoW's gameplay isn't good enough, I think appealing to social gamers will increase word of mouth, sales, and foster an environment where people stick around, not just for new content every month, but because they're playing a game with their friends.
That's what brings new people into MMOs and keeps them playing (yes, new content helps), but every MMO that still has at least two players has them because that's where their friends are. That's why people hang around MySpace, Facebook and Club Penguin. That's why people play Second Life, Gaia Online and MUDs. That's WHY people use the internet, to be with other people.
You bring people together, and you just might be able to beat WoW.